The Visible Man

What if we could see straight through to one another's grit, fragilities and wounds?

We were two days into Thanksgiving vacation before anyone asked about my knee.

My in-laws knew that I'd cracked my left patella back in June. They'd sent sympathetic missives from Honolulu and Berkeley. They phoned after my surgery. One niece mailed an envelope of origami stars and the most encouraging words she could summon: "I hope you recover sooner than the doctors think you will!"

All summer, I was the poster girl for kneecap rehab: humping up our street on my crutches in 90-degree humidity; propping my leg, clad in a hip-to-ankle carapace of black Velcro and vertical stiffeners, on the empty seat of the train.

But gradually, I lost the conspicuous trappings of injury. I weaned from the crutches; I shed the brace. I stopped walking with an iambic gait (ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK). By the time October crackled onto the calendar, I could wriggle jeans over my not-so-swollen knee and lean over to lace my Doc Martens.

I look like the "before" version of myself.

Except, I'm not.

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In the biblical Book of Ruth, which I chanted for the bat mitzvah I had at 33, Naomi returns to her village after suffering a devastation of losses: her husband has died, along with both of her sons. When she straggles back home, trailed by her loyal daughter-in-law, the village women barely recognize her; I picture a widow, streaked with grief, shoulders caved and hair grayer than before. "Is this Naomi?" the locals ask. And she tells them to call her by a different name—"Mara," which means "bitterness."

Loss leaves its stain; injury can clutch the body for a long, long time. Struggle—earthquake, fire, ripped ACL, sudden death of the most beloved—reshapes its survivors. At first, the effects are writ large: jags of tears, snappishness around the holidays, a list to the left when pacing uphill. But after a while, the body swallows its wounds. The spirit absorbs the loss and stumbles on. People stop asking.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the Visible Man Anatomy Kit: a 15-inch figure whose "skin" was clear plastic, a vitrine of a body through which you could see the twin ladders of ribs, the snaggle of intestines, the bulbous knees and threads of bluish veins. The toy, if it was a toy, took the metaphor of transparency and made it real. After playing with the kit, I looked at people differently: what were we, anyway, but rucksacks of skin, toting our moist stash of organs, our latticework of artery and bone?

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What I know now is that bodies break. That it happens so fast, a finger-snap from whole to fractured. Just like I know, after enduring anxiety for years, that the brain is a sponge, awash in its chemical sea. I am still learning, with deep breaths and patient mantras, to quiet its alarms.

Recently, I learned about someone who suffered trauma as a child; bright lights and loud noises threw her into a state of agitation. When she was in a car accident, and police swarmed the scene with their blood-red lights and shrieking sirens, she handed the first officer a small card. One side explained that she had post-traumatic stress disorder. The other listed antidotes: lowered voices, quiet spaces. The cop guided the woman gently away from the crowd. Before he took the accident report, he nodded at her card. "Me, too," he said, "PTSD. I'm a vet."

I could have used a card like that, during the long season in my late 20s and early 30s when I endured a constant drumbeat of anxiety, with the occasional cymbal-crash of panic. On the surface, I looked fine: a young woman bustling about her day. But inside, I quaked—heart scurrying, throat clenching, stomach cramping with dread, with shame and with the effort to keep those feelings secret.

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What if our wounds—the psychic ones and the physical ones—were scribbled on our skin? Imagine it: "Just lost my best friend," in loopy adolescent script on the forehead of the girl who is slamming her math book into the locker. "Worried about bills," in the palm of the man laboriously counting dimes in the Acme checkout line.

"Bad news from the oncologist" across the shoulder blades of the woman weeping quietly on the southbound train. "Panic attacks," in all-caps pink neon on the back of my neck as I bolt from the café.

It was liberating, this past summer, to broadcast my brokenness and the laborious climb back toward agility and strength. "You go, girl!" a stranger called as I crutched up a ramp to the Atlantic City boardwalk. People were so kind—holding doors, offering rides—and their softness made me feel tender in return, an exponential cycle of generosity and warmth.

I imagine a world in which I could wear all my scars, and my resilience, on my sleeve. The Visible Woman, transparent, unashamed: Did you know I used to be afraid to drive on bridges? That I had a breast cancer scare this fall? That my father died two springs ago and left an unfillable fissure in my heart?

"Are you an athlete?" someone asked last week at the gym where I go for physical therapy, as he watched me hop through the squares of an agility ladder spread on the floor. We'd been eyeing each other: He was 30ish and lithe, with a scar that laddered over his right knee. I watched him do one-legged chair squats, wincing with each bend.

I started to say, "I was."

The week before I broke my knee, I ran a 5K race in eight-minute miles. The day before, I walked more than 15,000 steps around the city of New Haven. The moment before, I sat on the window seat of a university dorm room, dangling my feet over the hardwood.

I was an athlete until the second I hit the floor.

Now, I am an injured athlete, a recovering athlete. A runner whose iliotibial band twangs painfully when the physical therapist digs her thumbs into the side of my thigh. A woman who is permitted to jog for two minutes at a time on a treadmill set for 12-minute miles. A person whose left knee, despite the deft work of an orthopedic surgeon, will always be a little knobbier than my right.

We are Matryoshka dolls, polished wood and painted smiles on the surface, all our old selves huddled inside. But what if we could see straight through to one another's grit, fragilities and wounds? If we could glimpse that brave and motley cargo, would we handle each other with more care? Would we feel less shame at being simply, irretrievably human?

Maybe it would be like this: We'd lower our voices and walk to a spot far from the whirling lights and noise. We'd pause to look through the deep keyholes of each other's eyes and ask, "How are you? I mean, really." Then we'd listen for the long answer.

Tags: well being